‘Today we stand and we speak together,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told a crowd several hundred strong last Friday in Tenafly. “Today,” declared the Cuban-American Roman Catholic, “we say, ‘We are all Jews.’”
He was speaking at a March 3 rally organized to condemn the increasing number of anti-Semitism acts and expressions of bigotry that are occurring regularly in New Jersey and throughout the United States in recent weeks. (At press time, a new round of bomb threats had been called in to nine JCCs, as well as several Anti-Defamation League offices on Tuesday.)
Menendez was the organizer and driving force behind the gathering at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. The senator brought together New Jersey’s most influential politicians and leaders of the state’s Jewish community to decry the bomb threats, graffiti, and other acts of hate aimed at Jews and other minorities.
As he welcomed an overflow crowd, Jordan Shenker, the JCC’s chief executive officer, said, “We are concerned not only about anti-Semitic behavior but hateful rhetoric or intolerance against our sister faiths and communities as well.
“This is not a Jewish issue,” he insisted. “This is an issue of principle and integrity.”
Menendez echoed Shenker’s message. “Whether you are a Sikh who wears a turban, whether you are a Hindu who wears a bindi” — a red dot traditionally worn on the forehead by Hindu women — “whether you are a Muslim who wears a hijab, or a Christian who wears a cross, or a Jew who wears a Star of David, all of us understand that together we are stronger than those who hate,” said Menendez.
“Together the collective glow of our humanity will cast a light on the darkness of those who hate,” he said, and called for doubling the amount of federal aid to provide security for nonprofit institutions.
Following the senator, NJ Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) spoke of his upbringing in the town of Livingston with a diverse group that included Catholics, Jews, Asians, and African-Americans, “who all worked together and grew up together.”
At the age of 13, the governor said, he attended “more bar and bat mitzvas than I can count, without thinking for a moment there was any reason the Italian- or Irish-Catholic shouldn’t be sitting there celebrating with his Jewish friends their movement into adulthood.”
He praised the Jewish community for standing up to the challenge of bigotry “with gusto and with pride,” noting that because Jews understand “how hate can victimize, you stand up first when you see hate being perpetrated against others.”
The governor said the state is offering $10,000 rewards for information leading to the capture of those who are guilty of the hateful acts. “Anyone who commits that type of crime will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and sent to prison,” he vowed.
In a rousing address, the state’s junior senator, Cory Booker (D), told the audience how two white civil rights volunteers — one of them Jewish — were able to procure a house for his African-American family in an all-white neighborhood of Harrington Park in his youth. “I am the physical manifestation of the love and decency and goodness of my fellow Americans and of Jewish-Americans,” he said.
“Jews understood the truth that before you speak to me about your religion, show it to me in how you treat other people,” said Booker. “This is the truth of Judaism.”
He told the crowd that during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Jews, Muslims, and gays fought and sometimes died alongside black people because “they were fighting for that call that is rife throughout the Koran, that is rife throughout the Torah, that is rife throughout the Christian Bible — the high ideal of justice.”
He said that day’s rally was not just a response to acts of hate, but “a reaffirmation of love,” and he called upon fellow members of the Senate and the House to rise above partisanship and increase security subsidies for nonprofit institutions.
“Nothing should divide us when it comes to standing up and protecting fellow Americans,” Booker said.
Among the other NJ legislators who spoke, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-Dist. 9) told the audience that between November and December 2016, there were more than 1,000 bias-related incidents in the United States — 19 of them in New Jersey — including bomb threats and spray-painted swastikas.
He said members of the Jewish community were quick to respond after a Muslim holy site was set ablaze. Holding up a copy of USA Today, he showed the audience a front-page headline that read, “Jews rally to support burned Florida mosque, $18 at a time.”
“This is your calling and all of our calling,” he said.
Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5), the only Jewish member of the state’s congressional delegation, told the audience that some of his family members perished in the Holocaust and that his son attends a Jewish preschool, where extensive security has become mandatory.
“I am as scared as everyone else when I drop off my son,” he said. “We are all pained by the threats.”
Speaking of the upcoming festival of Purim, Gottheimer said Esther, its heroine, “stood up for the Jewish community in the face of overwhelming odds at a time when it would have been safe to simply say nothing.
“All of us must follow the same lesson.”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), majority leader of the NJ Senate, told the gathering she is “thankful to be Jewish, to be part of the religion, and part of the values that cause us to stand up for other people, but more important, to stand up for ourselves.”
In closing the demonstration, Kaplen JCC president JoJo Rubach said that none of the seven bomb threats his organization received was found credible, but it has joined 81 JCCs in 33 states “in having to deal with this undeserved interruption of our services and the anxiety that it creates in our families and our community. This needs to stop.”
He urged the audience members to attend events and participate in activities in JCCs in their communities to show that “promoting tolerance and acceptance is stronger than those who spread hatred.”